It was in 1982 that the artist then still known as Prince first invited us to ‘party like it’s 1999’, and in those days everyone quickly grasped what he meant. The Cold War made people edgy (‘Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?’) and it seemed quite possible that we might wake up one morning and find that we were ‘out of time’. But now? Well, ‘it’s here and I like it,’ as Will Smith says in his greeting card to the new year ‘Will 2K’. There isn’t much anxiety in this song, it’s time to celebrate. What exactly? The ‘Willennium’, he helpfully suggests, ‘the party of a lifetime ... resolution: get the money’. Future historians looking for evidence of the ‘terrors’ of the year 2000 aren’t going to get much mileage out of Will Smith, or indeed any other area of popular culture. The Western world is unthreatened, some people are enjoying great prosperity, and governments are more popular than at any time in living memory. The End has become a marketing opportunity; it sells anything, even (in the TV ads) Uncle Ben’s rice.
Meanwhile, over in academia Prince is still the party tape of choice. Publishing ‘like it’s 1999’ may be variously interpreted, but whatever the resulting book is called, the assumption is the same: the end of the millennium is inextricably linked with apocalypse, the end of the world, and the messianic fanatics who seek to bring it about. And so although these three books are definably different, the thinking behind them is remarkably uniform. It is perhaps best illustrated by the circumstances behind Eugen Weber’s book. Invited by the University of Toronto to deliver a special lecture about fins de siècle, he soon discovered that there was not much to say. Centuries were an early modern invention, and it was only the end of the 19th that had attracted any special attention. Undeterred by his findings (or lack of them) about fins de siècle he nevertheless concluded that there is ‘a widespread demotic sense that the end of a calendric term somehow coincides with the end of an era, a culture, a civilisation’. Believing that ‘apocalypse is about the world’s progress to an appointed end,’ he fell back on the idea of talking about apocalypse instead. The result is an engaging and fast-moving survey, but the easy slide from fin de siècle to apocalypse is one that deserves closer examination.
The idea that a temporal end, however arbitrary, weights the time preceding it with a significance it might not otherwise possess is given its fullest expression in Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending. In this, perhaps his most influential book, Kermode argued that fiction, like apocalypse, gives shape to time by translating the relentless tick-tick-tick of bare chronicity into the tick-tock of a meaningful plot. By listening for the next tick as a tock, as the end of something that preceded it rather than the next in a meaningless and interminable succession, we invest time with shape and significance. And if tock is a tiny apocalypse, the end of a millennium ought to be a very big one.
Like much of Kermode’s writing, The Sense of an Ending is both extraordinarily lucid and strangely elusive. When I read it again recently, it often seemed like an extended response to a work to which it nowhere adverts – Eliot’s Four Quartets. This curious palimpsest was perhaps motivated by Kermode’s attempt to distance himself from Eliot while accepting the terms within which Eliot had formulated the question of time in ‘Burnt Norton’. Eliot’s premise is that ‘If all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable.’ Humanity needs some kind of redemption from time, but, paradoxically, ‘Only through time time is conquered.’ This juxtaposition of chronological time and redemptive time, which critics in the Fifties were already interpreting in terms of the opposition between mere flux and the Christian kairos, is also the basis of Kermode’s distinction between the ‘reality’ of chronos (tick-tick) and a ‘time-redeeming’ kairos (tick-tock). And just as Eliot looked to the coexistence of ‘Time past and time future/What might have been and what has been’ in one end in which ‘all is always now,’ so, according to Kermode, it is in the ‘concord of past, present and future ... in the present of things past, the present of things present, and the present of things future’ that such redemption becomes possible.
However, Kermode was doing more than giving covert expression to an Eliotic soteriology: he was also democratising it. According to Eliot in ‘Little Gidding’, ‘A people without history/Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern/Of timeless moments’. Substitute ‘fiction’ for ‘history’ and you have Kermode’s theory in a nutshell, but that substitution is the crux of the matter. His argument with Eliot, both in The Sense of an Ending and, far more explicitly, in his T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, The Classic, is that by identifying redemption with history, and history with a tradition that is ‘timeless and undesiring’, Eliot was offering salvation only to an elect. With his ‘persistent nostalgia for closed, immobile hierarchical societies’, Eliot was, as Kermode put it, ‘a poet ... of empire’. His idea of tradition was the continuity of empire, the timeless moments when ‘History is now and England.’ By suggesting that ‘in every plot there is an escape from chronicity,’ Kermode invested fiction with the time-redeeming potential Eliot found only in tradition. The effect was to liberate redemption from the past.
As many others have done, Kermode turned to apocalyptic in the attempt to counter-balance the overbearing weight of history. But in Eliot’s case, identification with tradition had itself been an attempt to escape from the apocalypse of The Waste Land. As Kermode noted in an essay written at the same time as The Sense of an Ending, the ‘imperialistic Eliot’ is the poet of the Roman ‘urbs aeterna ... the other side of this city is the Babylon of Apocalypse’. Eliot knows that ‘behind the temporal disaster of Babylon ... the timeless pattern of the eternal city must survive’; Kermode has less confidence. Instead, he finds within Eliot’s apocalypse the redemptive pattern the poet sought outside it. Complaining that we think of The Waste Land ‘as an image of imperial catastrophe, of the disaster and not of the pattern’, Kermode argues that Eliot’s apocalypse redeems the time more effectively than The Four Quartets. For Kermode, apocalypses are not something we need to be saved from, they are the way we save ourselves.
The equation of ending, apocalypse and fiction is founded on the assumption that ‘an end will bestow upon the whole duration and meaning.’ However it is not altogether clear that endings do what Kermode claims. In one of the Conversations about the End of Time (in which he fields questions like ‘Has “dark” matter anything to do with antimatter?’ and ‘Do you practise t’ai chi with someone Chinese?’) the playwright Jean-Claude Carrière suggests that human time is not made out of chronological time but is, as in Ecclesiastes, ‘a time for this and a time for that’. Such times are defined by their purpose rather than their ending, and of the two it is the former which is usually the more productive of meaning. The assumption that our experience of time is of chronos and that we need fictions to shape it into kairos seems, like the epistemological assumption that we experience bare sensations which we have to organise into meaningful shapes and sounds, to go too much against the grain of what we know about the world. It takes an effort to experience bare chronicity; we experience kairos by default. If this is so, then it is questionable whether temporal termini really have the significance Kermode attributes to them.
Although he articulates the opposition of empire and apocalypse in terms of eternity and eschatology, Kermode suggests that timelessness and ending are equally capable of redeeming us from time. Quite apart from the question of whether the sense of an ending saves us from, rather than consigns us to, mere chronicity, Kermode’s assumption that apocalyptic simply appropriates the benefits of empire is questionable. We can perhaps get a better understanding of how apocalyptic differs from tradition by comparing the ways in which apocalyptic and imperial writers use similar material. In this respect, an illuminating comparison is provided by Daniel (the first canonical apocalypse) and Plato (whose vision of a state founded on a timeless heavenly pattern is, in Kermode’s sense, imperial) for both make use of the same myth. No one knows exactly where the myth of the ages came from, but it is of ancient origin and is found in Zoroastrian sources and in Hesiod. In Zoroaster’s version there are four successive ages, each of a thousand years, the first of gold, the second of silver, the third of steel, and the last of iron alloy. Each age represents a decline on the previous one, and the same is true of Hesiod’s sequence, which goes from gold, to silver, to bronze, to iron save that there is an unnamed fourth age, interspersed between the bronze and the iron ages, which is the age of the heroes of Troy and Thebes whose achievements place them above both the preceding and the succeeding periods.
In the Republic Plato takes over this sequence (excepting the heroic age) and arranges it synchronically in a foundation myth designed to ensure the stability of the state. According to this version, when god fashioned men he put gold in the composition of the Guardians, silver in the Auxiliaries, and iron and bronze in the farmers and other workers. Their first and most important commandment to the Guardians was that they should ensure that there was no mismatch between the metallic composition of an individual and the social role they occupied. Children born to the Guardians who have other metals in place of gold must be demoted, children of other classes who have higher metals in their make-up promoted accordingly, the justification for this being a supposed prophecy that the state will be ruined when it has Guardians of silver or bronze.
Although the myth is a fiction which the inhabitants of the state must be duped into believing, Plato appears to accept a version of it himself. For when he comes to describe the sequence of political forms through which the ideal society might degenerate, he attributes degeneration to just such a confusion of metals. When the Guardians fail to educate the next generation properly, their successors will be unable to discern the metals from which the different classes are made. In consequence, they will become confused, and ‘when iron and silver or bronze and gold are mixed an inconsistent and uneven material is produced, whose irregularities, wherever they occur, must engender war and hatred.’ This strife produces timocracy, which degenerates into oligarchy, which, in turn, slides into democracy and from there into tyranny.
In Plato’s account, the successive forms of political degeneration are not explicitly identified with the preponderance of any particular metal. Nevertheless it is easy to see that there is a broad homology between the five successive forms of government, the four types of metal supposedly found within the souls of various social groups, and the threefold division of the individual soul into its rational, spirited and appetitive components. The ideal state is governed rationally by the Guardians with gold in the souls; in timocracy it is the spirited part, associated with silver and the Auxiliaries, that predominates; in oligarchy, democracy and tyranny, the appetitive parts of the soul, the bronze and iron of the money-making classes, take control, all that changes between one stage and the next being the balance between desires that are necessary and unnecessary, honourable and base. In effect, what Plato describes is a succession of governments characterised by the same metals as Hesiod’s sequence of the ages. But he also seeks to account for this mythic sequence in human terms. The debasement and mixing of metals becomes a metaphor for forms of social and psychological degeneration brought about through the dissolution of class divisions and the overturning of the hierarchy of the soul.
Daniel’s version of the myth has many similar features. In Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, recalled for him by the prophet Daniel, the Babylonian King sees a giant image with a head made of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay. Here is not only the same sequence of metals as in Hesiod and Plato, but, with the localisation of the metals to different parts of the body, a parallel with Plato’s anatomy of the soul in the Timaeus which places reason in the head, spirit above the midriff and appetite below. If Plato had been among the wizards and sorcerers called in to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, he would have managed pretty well. He, too, would have been able to tell the King that the sequence of metals represented a degenerative historical sequence of governments, and he would also have understood the principle embodied in the idea of iron mixed with clay as one of the incompatible mixture of opposites. But Plato would have been surprised by what happened next: a stone smashes the image in pieces and then enlarges to fill the whole earth. This event, which Daniel interprets as the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth at the end of the process of degeneration, has no parallel in Plato, or in later classical visions of a new golden age.
The differences between Daniel and Plato are worth considering, for they highlight the difference between the apocalyptic and the imperial approaches to history. What is shared between the two is a description of the process of degeneration in terms of debasement and mixture. Even Daniel’s own dream, which recapitulates the sequence of the four kingdoms through the symbols of four beasts beginning with a lion with the mind of a man and ending with a terrible beast with ten horns, iron teeth and bronze claws, would probably have made sense to Plato. He describes the three parts of the soul as a man, a lion and a many-headed beast, and so the descent from rational to appetite-driven forms of society could easily have been pictured in a similar fashion. But what is fundamentally different is that whereas Plato, like Nebuchadnezzar, who makes a golden statue in an effort to perpetuate his own kingdom of gold, can think only of the need to preserve the golden age and hold back the process of degeneration, Daniel, whose companions Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refuse to worship the golden image and are thrown into the fiery furnace, is not committed to the golden age or to resisting change. Here, the imperial and the apocalyptic responses to history diverge. Both are working with an understanding of history that presupposes a similar pattern of degeneration, but where the empire tries to hold on, if only through memory, to the golden age, apocalypse accepts the whole process of degeneration and mixture as inevitable. The fifth kingdom, the stone that smashes the image, not only mixes up all the different metals in the process: it is composed of a substance even less valuable than the iron which preceded it. It is no accident that millenarians who, like the Fifth Monarchy Men of the English Revolution, identify themselves with this kingdom are rarely supporters of established social traditions.
Because he gives a description of the social and psychological changes that effect the degeneration of the metals and which culminate in the rule of the many-headed appetitive beast, Plato also unwittingly provides the first sociological account of apocalypse. And in Plato’s portrayal of democracy, we get a clear picture of what a society ruled by the beast would be like. It is one in which all hierarchies are dissolved. Parents and children stand on an equal footing, there is no distinction between citizens and foreigners, and complete equality between the sexes; slaves have the same freedom as their masters, and even domestic animals acquire the same sort of rights as their owners. If this sounds familiar, we can perhaps begin to understand what it is about late modernity that strikes some people as apocalyptic. Eliot, as he acknowledged in a radio interview in 1958, found Plato’s account of democracy to be a recognisable description of 20th-century egalitarianism with ‘its mediocrity, its reduction of human beings to a mass’. And it was in response to this apocalypse that he retreated to his imperial fantasy of a hierarchically stratified society, divided along the lines of Plato’s ideal state.
Among the features that Eliot identified as essential components of tradition in After Strange Gods was taboo, a word whose contemporary use ‘in an exclusively derogatory sense’ he considered ‘a curiosity of some significance’. One of the primary functions of taboo is, as many anthropologists have argued, to prevent mixture and the confusion of kinds. It serves to keep things apart or in their place. But whereas traditional societies are good at maintaining taboos, the world seen in apocalyptic visions is one in which taboos are broken and chaos reigns. Those inspired by apocalyptic do not necessarily take a negative view of this. For example, one of the strangest apocalypses in the New Testament (and therefore not accepted as such by all Biblical scholars) is Peter’s vision in Acts. Falling into a trance on the roof of a house, Peter sees the sky open up and a great sheet being lowered down. In it are animals of every possible sort, ‘whatever walks or crawls or flies’. A voice commands Peter to kill and eat. Peter replies that he has never eaten unclean meat. The voice replies: ‘It is not for you to call profane what God counts clean.’ Without the kosher mentality, it is difficult to capture the horror of this invitation. (Perhaps the nearest contemporary equivalent would be seeing a shopping basket full of genetically modified vegetables being lowered out of the sky. An anthropologist might say that the principle behind the taboo, the avoidance of mixed kinds, was the same in both cases.) Nevertheless, it is easy to see how the vision fits into the apocalyptic pattern. Peter immediately grasps that God has instructed him to break the taboo against associating with Gentiles, and so he baptises the Roman centurion Cornelius, the first Gentile convert to the emerging Jewish sect of Christianity. From the point of view of a traditionalist, this failure to discriminate between Jew and Gentile is the start of the process of degeneration, the equivalent of the failure to distinguish between the metals in Plato’s republic, and the induction of a silver soul into the ranks of the Guardians. But what the story of Peter’s vision shows is that the action which, from the point of view of tradition, involves the dissolution of hierarchy and order, is, from another perspective, an act of recognition that fosters a more open and egalitarian community.
The crucial difference between apocalypse and empire, it is beginning to emerge, may lie not in the opposition between eternity and ending, but in areas that are far more politically sensitive. We know how Plato’s democratic apocalypse came about in modernity, through the recognition and emancipation of all sorts of disadvantaged groups – slaves, women, children and so on. And we know too how traditionalists have sought to maintain the distinctions, hierarchies and taboos that these emancipations systematically eroded. In this context it is clear that Eliot’s anti-semitism, his belief that a rooted, traditional society could not accommodate ‘too many free-thinking Jews’ is very much part of his negative reaction to apocalypse. Apocalypse almost invariably describes racial mixture – Plato’s democracy does not discriminate between citizen and foreigner, Daniel’s feet of iron and clay symbolise racial intermarriage – and according to Eliot, it is by being preserved from an ‘influx of foreign populations’ that tradition survives.
The complex relationship between Jewish and Christian identities in the history of apocalyptic interpretation is at the heart of Popkin and Katz’s Messianic Revolution. Just as Jewish apocalypses envision that Jews will get mixed up with Gentiles, Christian interpreters often came to believe that the Jews, long excluded from divine favour, would once again play a role in salvation history. As Weber notes, if Andrew Marvell’s coy mistress were to refuse ‘till the conversion of the Jews’ she would be holding out until the end of time, not because the Jews will never convert but because it is then that their conversion will take place. However, some Christians preferred to assume that they were the true Israel and that the Jews themselves were impostors. In their carefully documented and entertaining chapter on British Israelism, Popkin and Katz describe the development of the improbable belief that the Anglo-Saxon nations were the true heirs of the ancient Hebrews and the sole beneficiaries of God’s promises to them. (‘British’ equals the Hebrew brit-ish, ‘man of the covenant’; ‘Saxon’ is from ‘Isaac-sons’. Scottish plaid comes from Joseph’s coat of many colours etc.) This theory not only obviated the need for any conversion of the actual Jews, but, in the Christian Aryan movement in the United States, allowed the status of the Jews to be ‘progressively devalued and demonised’. And in its more extreme forms, the belief that the Anglo-Saxons are God’s chosen people inspires violent fantasies of revenge against the racially mixed society of contemporary America. The Oklahoma bomber was reading William Luther Pierce’s The Turner Diaries, a novel about the white revolution against Jews, Blacks and Hispanics.
Although some of these reactionary messianisms draw on apocalyptic literature, their vision of the future is unmistakably cast in the imperial mould. Whereas the apocalyptic looks forward to a new heaven and a new earth defined almost entirely by its dissimilarity to everything that has preceded it, the white supremacists hope to recreate a mythical all-white America, governed only by the Constitution. Their attitude to the degeneration they see around them is that shared by Plato and Eliot. The apocalyptic mentality, which sees racial and other forms of mixing primarily as a portent of things to come, is now far more mainstream. As Eco observes, ‘the great revolution of our century is not technical but social ... The simple fact that racism and intolerance are frowned upon today are proof of it. It involved a total reversal of human relations and relationships.’ The point is not that this revolution has been inspired by the apocalyptic (as abolitionism was in 19th-century America) but rather that the openness to change, the acceptance that even what might appear to be decadence and degeneration holds some future promise, is characteristic of the apocalyptic rather than the traditional or imperial view of history.
So what, if anything, is apocalyptic about the end of this millennium? It is not that a long period of time is, by general acknowledgment (if not precise calculation: the century actually ends next year), coming to an end. Temporal endings do not, in themselves, seem all that important to us. If Prince had simply said ‘party like it’s 1999’ without supplying the accompanying images of death, destruction and judgment, I’m not sure that people would have known, 17 years ago, exactly how partying like it’s 1999 differed from partying ‘like it’s Saturday night’. It is rather something about the changing dynamics of our society, our unprecedented willingness to dissolve hierarchies and the taboos that sustain them. Even though many of these changes are very recent, we tend to take them for granted. In ‘Miami’, which was re-released with the ‘Will 2K’ single, Will Smith describes a place where ‘every day is Mardi Gras’ and we can party with ‘all ages and races ... every different nation’. Fifty years ago this would have been absurd. Only books like The Turner Diaries treat these changes with the astonishment they should rightly provoke. But when we consign such reactions to an apocalyptic fringe we do ourselves an injustice. Almost the whole of human history, every tradition, every civilisation stands firmly alongside them. Ours is the apocalypse, theirs the empire.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.